‘A merchant in Baghdad goes with a servant to the marketplace, for provisions. Shortly afterward, the servant is jostled by a woman, whom he recognizes as Death. She makes a threatening gesture toward the merchant, who flees, on horseback, to Samarra – a distant town where, he believes, Death will not find him. The servant returns to the marketplace. He confronts Death, asking why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture; it was a start of surprise. I was astonished to see your master here, in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight, in Samarra.’


Aged eighteen, crossing the departure lounge of Cairo airport, Simon Rawson has five hours and some minutes left to live.

Melissa, in London, disapproves of her son’s demeanour. She believes expensive schooling gave him an undue sense of entitlement. Now, holding an Arabic newspaper; Simon pushes politely through the Cairo crowd, trying not to appear too English, or entitled. Around him travellers wheel coloured cases; they carry electric fans and stuffed camels, they shout into tiny phones, they look for loved ones.

The air smells of ammonia, humans, and patchouli. Simon’s heading for a slim girl, about his own age. She reads a paperback, the title hidden.

He says, ‘Do you mind?’

She smiles, a guarded smile; he takes the seat beside her.

‘I was thinking,’ he says, ‘we might change seats. Sit together on the plane.’

Now she turns, gives him her full attention. She has wide-set eyes, somewhere between brown and green.

‘Why would we?’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s mainly that you’re thin. You look nice, I know, but thin, that’s the kicker.’


‘I did something bad in another life,’ he says. ‘Now, I get fat people. They sit beside me on planes. You know? They kind of spill over into your seat. They breathe through their mouths. I mean, really bad breath.’

‘A tiny bit intolerant?’

‘Absolutely not,’ he says. ‘Fat people have a right to live, like thin people. I know that. I just don’t want to sit by them.’

She smiles, doesn’t laugh, and he wonders if he’s wasting his time. He starts the unobtrusive limb-stretching he’s been told you should do before a long flight. The girl goes back to her book.

Bored, he stops stretching; takes his phone, starts to text.

‘Girlfriend?’ she asks, looking up, watching his thumbs.

He shakes his head. ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘involved in some sort of, you know.’

She shakes her head. How could she know?

‘Like, scandal.’

The girl considers what lies on his lap. ‘Can you actually read that paper?’

He pauses texting; looks down at Al-Ahram; shakes his head.

‘It’s to make me look less like a tourist. It’s why I don’t carry a camel. You may not believe this: I saw you in a market. You were buying a denim shirt.’ She looks down at herself. She’s wearing a denim shirt. ‘King Soliman bazaar.’

‘In a city of eighteen million people, you saw me, in a bazaar?’

‘Cross my heart and hope to die,’ he says, lying. ‘I’m Simon, by the way. I guess you’re off to London?’

He’s talking too fast; he knows that. Unusually, he’s nervous. She nods.

‘You live there?’

‘I live with my dad.’ She waits for him to ask. When he doesn’t, she says, ‘Mum’s gone off on – ’with her fingers she makes quote-marks in the air – ‘a spiritual quest. Dad got me.’


‘York. You?’

‘Gap year,’ he says. ‘September, I start at St Andrews. You know – where you go if you miss all the really good ones. They take people like me. Not very bright.’


He nods. ‘That sort of thing.’

‘God,’ she says. ‘Scotland.’

‘It’s not like I’m going to grow old there. I mean, come pension time, I won’t be sitting in a wicker chair by a loch watching salmon jump. If they do jump. I don’t know your name.’

‘Holly.’ She’s gazing upward, watching the gate indicator. ‘Flight 109, boarding.’

Something Simon doesn’t catch comes over the public address system. He looks at Holly. She says, ‘Heathrow’s closed – landing some other place. Couldn’t hear it.’

She stands, unsheathing the handle of her carry-on, which looks way too big for an overhead locker. She says, ‘OK.’

‘OK, what?’

‘OK. If they let us sit together, I’d like that.’

‘Trust me,’ says Simon. ‘I’ll work it out.’

And he does.

Four hours and twenty minutes later, when the plane blows apart, morsels of Holly and fragments of Simon spread, commingled, across the heather-clad hills of the Scottish border.